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Peter Keleghan on The War of 1812: Been There, Won That


Peter Keleghan, who describes himself as a "rabid Canadian comedic actor"
hosts The War of 1812: Been There, Won That on CBC's Doc Zone, Thursday, October 4

"A confusing, awkward mess." That's how the War of 1812 is described in the opening of CBC's Doc Zone documentary, The War of 1812: Been There, Won That. To this day, too many people are still confused about exactly what went down all those years ago. 200 years ago, to be precise. We sat down with the host of the documentary, self-described "rabid Canadian comedic actor" and Gemini winner Peter Keleghan, to find out more about the upcoming doc exploring "the myths and mysteries, mayhem and marvels of this 'forgotten' war":

CBC Live: Why is the war still so confusing, and do you think this documentary will answer people's questions about it?

Peter Keleghan: I think it will answer the question of why it's confusing. It was a war between friends. The agenda that certain Americans had was not the agenda of the mass population of the States. There was the famous line that Thomas Jefferson had, that it was going to be a "mere matter of marching". In fact, it wasn't, and I think it spoke volumes about the fact that we, as a people, came together to fight against something that we believed in.

There's a line in the documentary about Isaac Brock and how he didn't seem to want to be there, but still gave his all. Which was so... Canadian of him.

PK: Yeah, it's like we really don't know who or what we are until we're pushed to a wall, given these patriotic touchstones that we can actually lean on. We're actually very simplistic in our thoughts about patriotism and I think the major reason for that is two fold. One, our population is actually quite small in comparison and, two, we've never really had divisiveness like the Americans have, or challenge like the Americans have. They've had presidents assassinated, the Civil War, the Challenger accident, 9/11 and all of these things. We have never actually been faced with a challenge to our sovereignty apart from this War of 1812.

Tell me a little bit about the role Tecumseh played, and if you could compare him to anyone today who would it be?

PK: That's a very good question. Tecumseh, as a native leader, was one of the only ones that succeeded in unifying the very fragmented and very fragile tribes of North America. Tecumseh succeeded in rousing the spirits of these people in order to defend their homeland. So, sort of much more socialistic, maybe he's a Tom Mulcair? They both succeeded in gaining a lot of strength very quickly, especially when threatened. I don't think you can diminish Tecumseh's role in the war, because he was an extremely brave, extremely eloquent, extremely intelligent and good leader at the time. Very much an enemy of the expansionist aspirations of the United States. It was in their best benefit to do away with him. To obliterate him and everything he stood for.

The documentary is very humorous, or funnier than most - did that have anything to do with you, or is that what attracted you to it?

PK: I think if you look up rabid Canadian and then the comedic actor subsection, there's my picture. That's probably how they approached me with it. There have been several documentaries about the War of 1812 and so many of them were awful and very inaccurate. I think that our strength is really showing the ambiguity, the confusion and the lack of truth - on both sides - that perpetuated itself throughout the war.

Did you have quite the interest in the war beforehand?

PK: No, I knew very little except bits and pieces that I learned in school. I knew I couldn't commit to it too ignorant of the past, so I did a good month and a half of bedtime research, I went to talks. In the end I was coached beautifully by Susan Teskey, she's got this encyclopaedic mind about who and what happened. For me personally, I got a private tour of the Capitol building, I got to see Brock's coat, to examine it, to see the grease stain on the back of his neck that was there since 1812... that was just thrilling. That really attracted me. Because I was doing the documentary I got to hold Brock's hat - I never put it on - but I have a picture of me holding it. I'm a history buff. I love things like time capsules, I love how people lived, how things worked. I love putting myself in their shoes and just being close to these things, even just as a Canadian, my patriotic fervour was increased.

After the month and a half of research you'd done personally, how long did it take to make the doc as a whole? You went to Kentucky, to Detroit, to loads of different places. You got to fire a musket and wear all of these uniforms. Which part was the most enjoyable?

PK: We've still got the final voiceovers to do, so a good four months. In retrospect it was all enjoyable. In the moment, because of the incredibly bad heat, because of the pressure... that made it really difficult, really challenging. But it's worth it. They said at the end, "I bet you miss us!" and well I do miss them but it's kind of like the Stockholm Syndrome.

You've had quite the career with CBC. What have been your favourite moments?

PK: I loved doing The Newsroom, that was one of the earliest things I did here. Actually, I did seventeen years or something ridiculous on The Red Green Show. I love the unified auteurship of people like Ken Finkleman, Rick Mercer, Steve Smith... they create something and have autonomy in what they're doing. In Ken Finkleman's case, the first six episodes of The Newsroom were so low budget and so under the radar that nobody really had a chance to put their paws on it. We had carte blanche to do whatever we wanted. We were in the CBC newsroom and I was sitting there with Suhana Meharchand and a bunch of others just sort of chewing the fat. But as soon as the show aired, we were persona non grata anywhere near the newsroom. The fact that Ken had autonomy - and the buck stopped with him - meant we could experiment, we could play with impunity. That was incredibly satisfying. The same with The Red Green Show, I mean Steve Smith's credo has always been "give me enough money to do a TV show but not enough to care about what I'm doing," and that was true with his case. With Rick Mercer and Made in Canada, it's a prime example of a huge respect for the artists, a huge respect for Canadian artists. He had a different Canadian celebrity on weekly and with very, very, smart scripts. It worked, and it worked because it had cohesiveness and autonomy.

If I could draw a parallel to what we did on this documentary, Susan and myself were the artistic directors. She was the ultimate buck-stops-here person and I always deferred to her because she's been doing this for a gazillion years and I'm a newbie at making documentaries. We were out there in the trenches doing what we wanted to do in that sort of under the radar way, delivering to Mark Starowicz, CBC and all of the powers that be. "Look, here I am shooting a forensic pathologist in the chest with a gun, that I thought of at the eleventh hour..." Susan was not sure that he was going to play along with that, but he did because he has a sense of humour.

Talking about these guys that dress up and do this sort of thing every week, recreating these battles, did it make you think "I could do that...?"

PK: Oh no. Exactly the opposite. To give you an example, we were there one morning, they were waiting for us at 10 o'clock, it was probably about 80 degrees. We did all of those scenes, the marching back and forth, up and down, we were done by about six or seven. The sun was cooling off at that point, but we were going at that for the whole time. Now they, as reenactors, were there to reenact it exactly the way the soldiers had. After that day all I did was hop in my car with a cup of coffee, zoom home, have a shower, fall in bed. They had tents, nowhere to shower, they had their wives and their children and they were all camped out, living exactly the way they lived. There was one guy who was a police officer from London, Ontario, and he was the big drill sergeant. There was another guy, a computer analyst, that was an officer. As soon as they got their uniforms on, everybody treated them like they were that position. Which is very twisted to me. I do not understand that. Talking casually to these guys, they were saying that they know a lot of people sort of pooh-pooh what they do, but they asked who's going to teach our children how this sort of stuff happened? And he had a very good point. He really teaches the kids what it was like and the children were totally into it too. I thought, okay, one step away from that, I would like my kids to see, maybe when they were young, what it was like to fire muskets. That's what we came from, that's what we looked like, that's how we ate and that's what we did. But, they are just rabid about this reenacting thing. I could not do that.

To see these reenactors in action (with Peter Keleghan joining in) and much more about what really happened at the War of 1812, tune into CBC Television on Thursday, October 4 at 8pm for The War of 1812: Been There, Won That. Check out a preview below: